By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the course of her one-hour videotaped deposition, reviewed by the Weekly, Chick said that her office has never audited outside attorney billings. She refused to say whether she has received complaints that firms are feasting at the city trough. She denied knowledge of critical facts leading up to Carvin’s firing, leaving the impression that she was less interested in what Carvin had to say or the issue of attorney overbilling than in what the City Attorney’s Office and its outside firms think. Chick denies any knowledge of: written statements by Armstrong that he authorized Carvin to look into Brown Winfield’s billings as a subject for potential investigation; letters to McCall from Simon and Lewis regarding their less-than-favorable impressions of Carvin; the origin of a letter to Carvin, which contains her signature, chastising him for “exercising poor judgment in pursuing [potential overbilling by outside counsel] without approval of Controller management”; and Carvin’s similar inquiries into other overbilling matters that did not result in his firing.
Chick’s seeming indifference to Carvin’s firing is on display when she says, “If the evidence shows that [Armstrong] specifically authorized the exact line of questioning that Carvin did, then I would lean toward saying he had supervisor approval.” Then she concedes she never asked Armstrong what instructions he gave Carvin. Chick waffles between hiring Carvin because “we wanted an investigator who could move quickly in terms of the time it takes to do a full-blown audit” and firing him because of her desire to “begin the investigator position slowly.” She declines to explain her understanding of the difference between an investigation and an audit, saying, “I would just be conjecturing.” (Armstrong defines an investigation as going wherever the facts lead; an audit is conducted within pre-defined parameters, he says.)
an awkward moment comes when Chick is asked if she received any money from attorneys at Brown Winfield within 60 days of Carvin’s firing, in May 2002. The controller starts blinking rapidly. “No,” she says. “Who is Donna Black?” asks Carvin’s attorney Louis Cohen. Chick closes her eyes for a moment and barely whispers the name. “I think she is a land-use attorney, and I also know her in her relationship with her significant other, Harvey Englander,” Chick says. Then, after her eyes have spun around in a complete circle, she stammers, “If I’m correct. And if that’s not the right Donna Black, then I don’t know who Donna Black is.”
Black is a former lobbyist, well-known land-use attorney, frequent campaign contributor and a former partner at Brown Winfield. Currently she is a partner at Morrison & Foerster. City Ethics Commission records indicate that on March 29, 2002, while a partner at Brown Winfield, Black contributed $250 to Chick’s officeholder account. Records further show that Black, also a former partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, contributed $250 to Delgadillo’s campaign for city attorney. Ethics records indicate that Black also was affiliated with the MWW Group, a political-consulting firm run by her fianc√©, Harvey Englander, Chick’s campaign manager in two successful bids for City Council. Black insists that the MWW listing is a mistake, that she has never worked for Englander’s firm, and that she “hardly knows” Chick, to whom she was introduced several years ago by Manatt partner Lisa Specht, a major lobbyist and campaign contributor. “I have no idea why anyone would be asking about me,” Black says. “I knew the [Dillingham–Ray Wilson] case came into [Brown Winfield] when I was there, but I never worked on it.” Of her former firm she says, “They give money to campaigns, but they aren’t in the same league as Manatt.” (Brown Winfield has contributed $19,000 to city candidates since 1998. Manatt has given $139,000.)
Englander has criticized Chick for targeting former supporters such as Ted Stein, the power lawyer and former airport commissioner under investigation in the so-called pay-to-play scandal, and Doug Dowie, a public-relations executive with scandalized PR giants Fleishman Hillard. “I know Laura pretty well,” Englander says. “Her new zealousness has become very personal and directed at people who supported her.” Englander declined to comment on how Chick would react to investigations of allies she still values, such as Delgadillo, or probes of firms he has hired. But of the Carvin case he says, “Laura Chick does not want her reputation sullied in a wrongful-termination suit. It detracts from her image. But I bet she doesn’t want an audit of her lawyers’ bills in that case either.”
Since 2001, Delgadillo has had billing guidelines in place for outside law firms. But Chick said she does not know what they are. One billing practice the City Attorney’s Office prohibits is known as “block billing,” the grouping of two or more tasks on a single invoice entry without specifying how much time was spent on either. Block billing can be a method of burying costs and inflating legal bills. And while it seems odd that Brown Winfield provided a written opinion on Dan Carvin’s usefulness in investigating billing practices in a matter the firm was litigating, it is even more odd that the firm billed the city $1,000 for its time — with an invoice, a copy of which the Weeklyobtained, containing a block-billed entry for research and drafting.